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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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8. Regional Realism   

8. Regional

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- Charles W.
- Kate Chopin
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- Mary E. Wilkins
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- Sarah Orne
- Alexander Posey
- Mark Twain
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Authors: Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) (1835-1910)

Mark Twain
[3777] Anonymous, Mark Twain, Captain (1895), courtesy of the Mark Twain House, Hartford, CT.

Mark Twain Activities
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Samuel L. Clemens, better known by his pen name "Mark Twain," continues to enjoy a reputation, already attained by the end of his lifetime, as an icon of American literature. As such, he and his most enduringly popular novel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, have been subjects of high praise and, at times, subjects of probing questions about the cultural assumptions that shape definitions of "literature" and of "American-ness" at different historical moments. Indeed, Twain's fame stems in large part from his ability to raise questions about American identity and values in humorous ways through his writings, though they are often tinged with bitterness and despair.

Twain's life provided subjects and sources for many of his works. Born in Missouri, he grew up in the Mississippi river town of Hannibal, which, thinly disguised as St. Petersburg, became the boyhood home of his most famous characters, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Clemens himself did not enjoy a long childhood. Following the death of his father, he left school at age twelve and worked for the next several years as a printer's apprentice to help support his mother and four siblings. During this time, he also began to try his hand at writing. In 1853 he embarked on a three-year period of travel as a journeyman printer, which took him through the Midwest and as far east as New York. This adventure was succeeded by an apprenticeship and subsequent job as a riverboat pilot, an exciting and lucrative experience that he would later recount in his 1883 memoir Life on the Mississippi. When the beginning of the Civil War ended Mississippi riverboat commerce in 1861, Twain enlisted for a brief period in the Confederate militia and then spent the next several years wandering through the West. He entered into a number of failed get-rich-quick schemes with his brother in the Nevada Territory (the subject of his 1872 memoir Roughing It) and published satirical sketches for western newspapers, first as an occasional contributor and then as a popular regular reporter and correspondent. In these pieces, he developed his skilled ear for dialect, establishing what would become his trademark humorous style of capturing the particularities of time, place, and personality by merely seeming to report what characters say in their own words, however unpopular or crude the sentiments. Following the convention of the age, these pieces appeared anonymously or under a pseudonym, for which Clemens chose "Mark Twain," the river pilot's term for a safe depth for passage.

Though Twain satirized genteel convention and corruption in print, he aspired to higher social status, vast riches, and greater fame for himself. He established his reputation in 1869 with the publication of The Innocents Abroad, a popular book about his experiences on the first large-scale American tourist excursion to Europe after the Civil War. Soon thereafter, in 1870, he married Olivia Langdon, the daughter of a wealthy coal merchant, and moved first to Buffalo and then into a fashionable mansion in Hartford, Connecticut, where his life began to assume the trappings of gentility. During the 1870s and 1880s, Twain began producing the novels for which he is best remembered today, including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), a simultaneously anti-sentimental and nostalgic tale of Missouri boyhood; The Prince and the Pauper (1882), a popular historical romance; A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), a social and political burlesque in the form of a parody of the historical novel; and, most notably, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). Huckleberry Finn, his greatest work, is remarkable above all for conjuring up a vivid sense of a time and place, for using humor and pathos to pose crucial questions about race relations and the legacy of slavery, and for experimenting with narration and dialect. Through the naive perspective of Huck, a first-person boy narrator who speaks in slang and dialect, Twain exposes social inhibitions and injustices, the gaps between what the American people are supposed to be and what they are.

Twain's literary output dropped off in the remaining two decades of his life, during which time he lived abroad with his family for substantial periods. Those works that he did produce, such as Following the Equator (1897), a memoir of a trip around the world, reflect a new concern with global affairs, as well as an increasingly caustic and pessimistic tone. Nonetheless, during the final years of his life, he found himself celebrated everywhere, attaining fame at home and abroad as a kind of living literary institution and firmly securing a place for himself in the history of American letters.

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